Harvest. For winemakers, no other word is loaded with so much potential and anticipation. After a long growing season of endless work in the vineyards, harvest means pencils down, time's up. And no matter how hard you have labored all year, at the end of the day, nature usually has the last word. On the West Coast in 2012, most vintners are reporting the easiest season in years—the winemaker's job is to not destroy the gift nature gave them. In many parts of Europe, however, it's a year for damage control, a year when you can learn who knows how to best handle challenges and rise above the rest.
In the second of five 2012 vintage reports, winegrowers in the Pacific Northwest are celebrating a warm growing season after a cold 2011. After enduring a lot of rain last year, winemakers on the East Coast were grateful for sunshine and a season that finished before Hurricane Sandy arrived. As for final quality in the bottle—it's too early to know. But here's a sneak peek.
The good news: A warm, dry season produced beautiful wines from all top varieties.
The bad news: Early budbreak and minor frost may have diminished some yields, but not much. Vineyards without irrigation suffered some in dry conditions.
Picking started: Aug. 25 for sparkling wine; Sept. 3 for still wine
Promising grapes: Riesling, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer
Analysis: The Finger Lakes region enjoyed a warm, dry growing season and ideal harvest weather, resulting in a very consistent harvest of white and red varieties. Producers were generally ecstatic, despite a precocious spring that saw an early budbreak in mid-March. “The advantage of vines staying dormant, of course, is that they aren't threatened by spring frosts,” said Peter Bell, winemaker at Fox Run. "This year, a few frost events did happen in late March, but they weren't serious." From there the season turned warm and dry. Well-timed rains in August gave the vines a boost.
Riesling is the Finger Lakes' lead variety, and producers were gushing over the rare combination of ripeness and fresh acidity. “With all the warm weather, I had suspected that we may be facing flavors and structure in Riesling where the bright, electric fruit was somewhat supplanted by flavors of more stewed and baked fruit,” said Dave Whiting, owner and head winemaker at Red Newt Cellars. "But so far, I am seeing terrific, bright fruit and great acid structure." Red varieties also performed well, with growers picking leisurely through the month of September. "The dry weather afforded us the opportunity to wait for optimal ripeness on each Pinot Noir clone and vineyard block,” said Tom Higgins, owner and winemaker at Heart & Hands Winery on Cayuga Lake.
Tom Higgins picking estate vineyard Pinot Noir for Heart & Hands Wine Company in the Finger Lakes.
The good news: One of the region's warmest years produced ripe fruit.
The bad news: Fall rains hurt growers who weren't vigilant in defending vineyards from mildew.
Picking started: Aug. 25 for sparkling wine; Sept. 9 for still wine
Promising grapes: Cabernet Franc; Petit Verdot
Analysis: After slogging through the wettest vintage yet in 2011, Long Island winemakers were delighted by a warm, dry 2012. "We had a beautiful and warm year with really quiet weather patterns all summer with lots of heat and sun," said Rich Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars. That warmth was the difference between greatness and disaster—an early start to the year brought harvest two weeks early. And Hurricane Sandy came roaring up the East Coast just days after the last red grapes were picked.
At Wölffer Estate in the Hamptons, winemaker Roman Roth also started picking two weeks early. The warm, dry weather made things easy for much of the year, but growers couldn't just kick back. "You couldn't take it easy because every week in August and September there was some rain and that brought disease pressure," said Roth, who also makes his own brand, Grapes of Roth. He also reported frost in the spring, but that proved a blessing for Cabernet Franc, which can suffer from high yields. The frost kept yields low, the Cabernet Franc fully ripened, and the Merlot kept some elegance due to the fall rains.
The good news: Dry summer led to an early harvest and full ripeness.
The bad news: Cool spring limited yields; mid-October rains washed out the few vineyards that hadn’t been picked.
Picking started: Sept. 17
Promising grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris
Analysis: After two vintages with some of the coolest temperatures on record, 2012 presented Oregon winemakers with warm, consistent weather. A dry summer produced Pinot Noirs of deep color and rich fruit character. “Our more established sites came through with their personalities completely intact,” said Dave Paige at Adelsheim, “big, delicious versions of the wines we know them to be.” Although alcohol levels could be high, the grapes retained plenty of acidity to create zesty tension. “Storybook weather,” said Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem. “The Pinots are not fruit bombs. They have a nice balance. It’s hard to imagine improvements.”
“Chardonnay and sparkling wines are looking ridiculous good, too,” said Rollin Soles of Argyle, which specializes in sparkling wines. That said, there is some concern that warmer than usual temperatures at the end of September, which came just before the grapes got fully ripe, caused some unwelcome raisining in vineyards without irrigation. And those vineyards that did not come in before the rains got diluted, or were unusable because of rot.
Workers transport Pinot Noir at Alloro winery in Oregon.
The good news: After a disastrous waterlogged 2011, a more typical year was welcomed by all.
The bad news: A wet August meant growers had to wage battle against mildew.
Picking started: Sept. 8
Promising grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Franc
Challenging grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot
Analysis: The best thing about 2012 for Virginia's winemakers? It wasn't 2011. A horrible, rainy September last year wreaked havoc on that vintage. This year brought a warm, sunny spring and early summer. August was wetter, but manageable. "Is it the best vintage ever? No," said Jim Law of Linden Vineyards. "But it was typical, much better than the past two, and we have learned to make better wines in typical years."
Rain and humidity can be a big challenge in Virginia's leading regions—the areas around Charlottesville and Middleburg. That wet weather in August meant growers had to be constantly fighting downy mildew, pulling leaves and allowing wind to dry out grape clusters. During harvest, wineries had to work hard at their sorting tables. "Merlot was perhaps the star, with crunchy red fruit, firm tannins and moderate sugars," said Law. "Newly introduced clones of Cabernet Franc held up very well as rains became more frequent." But Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot struggled to fully ripen.
Winemaker Bob Betz (right) inspects Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington State.
The good news: Healthy conditions produced largest crop ever, topping 2010 by almost 20 percent.
The bad news: Early October frosts hit vineyards without wind machines.
Picking started: Sept. 6
Promising grapes: Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Riesling
Analysis: Washington vintners are overjoyed at what they are tasting after a growing season that tracked very much like 2008, one of the best vintages in memory. Depth of color and flavor in an abundant crop that retained its desired acidity seem to have put a smile on most winemakers’ faces. “Everybody’s happy,” said Doug Gore, chief winemaker for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “This is what Washington does when we have a good ripe year.” Vintners attribute the large crop to additional plantings around the state coming into production, not because individual vineyards are yielding too much fruit.
After a couple of relatively cool vintages that presented ripening and moisture challenges, 2012 allowed the vines to ripen normally, said Hugh Shiels of DuBrul Vineyard and Côte Bonneville winery. “The waves were coming smoothly,” he said “No logjams in the winery. You could hang the fruit longer without worrying about things getting too ripe.” That steady ripening also allowed for structure and elegance. “We have the freshness of the fruit and acidity from the cool nights plus the concentration of color, tannins and richness because of the warm days,” said Gilles Nicault, winemaker for Long Shadows. “The intensity of these wines is remarkable.”
Pumping over Pinot Noir juice fermenting in the tank at Oregon's Penner-Ash.